Arming of Pilots Is Way Overdue
Today, 1 1/2 years after 9/11, the first class of 48 commercial pilots finally starts training to carry guns on airplanes. Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s rules for screening and training pilots mean few will qualify. Our air travel system is still very vulnerable to hijacking, and quick measures need to be taken.
Consider the following:
* Pilot unions report that although one-third of the flights out of Reagan National have air marshals, the level is close to 1% for Baltimore-Washington International Airport flights and essentially zero over most of the rest of the country.
* The newest generation of reinforced cockpit doors has just been put in place, but few experts have much faith in their effectiveness. Last summer, on a bet, a cleaning crew rammed a drink cart into one of the new doors on a United plane. The door reportedly broke off its hinges.
* No tests of airport screening have been made public since the government took over screening last fall, but, in private meetings, the Transportation Security Administration acknowledges there are a wide range of undetectable lethal weapons.
The administration unfortunately views armed pilots as a problem, not as a last layer of security, and has done what it can to discourage pilots from applying for the armed-pilot program. The incredibly intrusive application form warns pilots that the information obtained by the Transportation Security Administration is “not limited to [the pilot’s] academic, residential, achievement, performance, attendance, disciplinary, employment history, criminal history record information, and financial and credit information.” The information can be turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration and used to revoke a pilot’s commercial license. As one pilot told me, “The Transportation Security Administration is viewed as hostile to pilots, and pilots are afraid that if they are not viewed as competent for the [armed pilots] program, they may be viewed as not competent to continue being pilots.”
The screening and psychological testing required of the pilots are also much more extensive and intrusive than that required for the vast majority of air marshals. Some questions even appear designed to purposefully disqualify pilot applicants. For example, pilots are asked whether they have ever “experienced a loss of pay while working as a sworn [law enforcement officer].” This is not an uncommon occurrence because some pilots hold second jobs as law enforcement officers, and changes in airline schedules often prevent them from working as officers.
Pilots also have to shoulder the financial burden of taking a week off from work to obtain the necessary training to carry a gun. They have been willing to bear these costs to protect lives but have grown very reluctant when they see how the program has been implemented.
More than 70% of the pilots at major airlines have military backgrounds, but the administration is still not in favor of arming pilots. The government is considering allowing at most 650 pilots to be trained between now and Oct. 1, when the fiscal year ends. Over the Bush administration’s opposition, Congress has overwhelmingly passed legislation that a program be set up to arm pilots.
Few people realize that until the 1960s, commercial passenger pilots on any flight carrying U.S. mail were required to carry handguns; they were allowed to do so until 1987. Protecting people should be as important as protecting the mail once was.
The administration can hardly claim confidence that its screening, reinforced doors and air marshals are enough. When we last went to Code Orange alert, jet fighters were flying over New York City and Washington, and surface-to-air missiles were set up to shoot down a hijacked aircraft if necessary. The administration continues to be more worried about pilots with guns than about having to shoot down a passenger airplane.